BAGHDAD - U.N. officials accused Iraq on Wednesday of withholding civilian death figures to try to deflect attention from escalating violence and a worsening humanitarian crisis despite the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown.
Those conclusions by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq drew a sharp rebuke from the Iraq's political leadership, which called the report "unbalanced" and said it raised questions about the credibility of the U.N. staff in Iraq.
The clashing views over the document - which covered three months ending March 31 - reflect a wider debate that goes beyond attempts to tally the bloodshed: whether the Baghdad security operation has made any lasting progress since the crackdown was launched in mid-February.
While some measures suggest the capital is less violent - such as apparent Shiite death squad killings reportedly on the decline - bombings blamed on Sunni insurgents have continued with deadly frequency.
"Armed groups from all sides continued to target the civilian population," said the 30-page report.
The report's critical tone could embolden calls by the Democratic-controlled Congress to begin withdrawing U.S. troops by Oct. 1. It also could complicate efforts to win financial aid pledges from Iraq's neighbors during a regional conference in Egypt next week.
The report avoided any judgment of the military effectiveness of the drive to regain control of Baghdad. But it took issue with tactics used against Iraqi civilians in the city - alleging, for example, that whole families were often taken into custody at random during security sweeps.
"The government of Iraq continued to face immense security challenges in the face of growing violence and armed opposition to its authority and the rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis," the report said.
It added that "the use of torture and other inhumane treatment" in government detention centers "continues to be of utmost concern." The report did not give specific locations, however.
In the report, the U.N. mission noted that government officials had claimed "an initial drop" in the number of killings in late February following the launch of the Baghdad security plan. But the report said the number of casualties "rose again in March."
That finding was based on Iraqi and foreign media reports of attacks, the U.N. said. The report was unable to provide official, comprehensive death figures because the Iraqi government refused to release them.
During a press conference, U.N. human rights officer Ivana Vuco said the government did not give an official reason for refusing to release the numbers. But she said the government was apparently "becoming increasingly concerned about the figures being used to portray the situation as very grim."
"Unofficially, however, in a number of follow-up meetings to their decision, we were told that there were concerns that the people would construe the figures to portray the situation negatively and that would further undermine their efforts to establish some kind of security and stability in the country," she said.
In a statement, the Iraqi government expressed deep reservations about the report, terming it "inaccurate in presenting information" and lacking "credibility in many of its points." "Also, it lacks balance in presenting the situation of the human rights situation in Iraq," the statement added. "The publication of this unbalanced report ... puts the credibility of the U.N. office in Iraq at stake and it aggravates the humanitarian crisis in Iraq instead of solving it," the government said. The statement offered no explanation for withholding casualty figures, and did not provide any numbers. But government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press that the system for tabulating casualty figures "is not easy" because "in the recent period, the number of casualties increased." Al-Dabbagh, for example, cited confusion over casualty figures from the April 12 suicide attack in the Iraqi parliament building. The U.S. military first reported eight deaths but then lowered the figure to one the following day. "Even the casualties of the parliament explosion were not accurately counted," he said. Human Rights Watch referred to the U.N. report and urged the government to release the casualty figures, calling them an important barometer of the war's human cost. "Iraqi citizens face extreme violence every day and they deserve a full and accurate picture of what is taking place," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. The furor draws attention to the absence of a comprehensive, accurate count of the number of Iraqis who have died since the war began in March 2003. Last year, a study by British scientists published in The Lancet medical journal concluded that more than 600,000 Iraqis had been killed since the U.S.-led invasion. President Bush said he did not consider it "a credible report." Iraq Body Count, a private group that relies on published reports, estimates the civilian death toll for the war between about 62,400 and 68,430. Figures compiled by The Associated Press from police reports show that violent deaths have declined in Baghdad since the start of the security operation but have increased outside the capital. The most dramatic decline has been in the number of bodies found across the capital, usually attributed to sectarian death squads. At least 1,041 bodies were found in Baghdad between Feb. 14 and April 24, compared with at least 2,273 bodies during the 70 days before the crackdown, the AP figures show. U.N. spokesman Said Arikat said the government complained last January that the U.N.'s death count was exaggerated. But Arikat insisted the U.N. count was based on "the most carefully screened figures." The U.N. report issued in January found that 34,452 civilians were killed last year, including 6,376 in November and December. Those figures were higher than any released by government agencies. The U.N. said its figures were based on information from the Iraqi Health Ministry, hospitals across the country and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad. Despite the uncertainty over precise figures, the U.N. report insisted that violence remains high throughout the country, with indiscriminate killings and assassinations by insurgents, militias and other armed groups. "In February and March, sectarian violence claimed the lives of large numbers of civilians, including women and children, in both Shia and Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad," the report said. AP-CS-04-25-07 1859EDT
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